Summer 2017 Update

Summer is here! Hopefully you are enjoying a slower pace and taking time to relax. It really is essential, I have found, to find seasons when you can deviate from the daily grind. Maybe you are able to take a nice vacation. For others it may mean an entirely different schedule than the school year that allows you to enjoy different things. My family will be headed to Galveston a couple of times to see friends, go to the beach, and maybe a little fishing.

Here is my vacation tip (one that I need to practice as well). If you are truly trying to have a vacation, leave the work behind, all of it. That may mean leaving a laptop at home, disconnecting your email app, or turning your phone off completely. The first day is weird. It feels like you left the oven on or forgot to close the garage. Once you get over that nagging feeling, it is freeing to feel undivided. You can fully be where you are and present to whom you’re with.

For me, and perhaps for you too, this is all about control. I like to live under the illusion that I’m in control of things. I am on top of what is happening and I know what needs to be done. I sense that things are going well when I’m in control. Staying connected to my work and people who might need me gives me control. And a vacation might be the most opportune time to let go of control and join God in a Sabbath.

Summer has become a busy time for me over the last several years – go figure. This summer is no different. In July I am headed to Toronto for a week to attend the annual conference of The Hymn Society. I’ll be presenting a workshop called, “Engaging Worship and Culture: (Re)Discovering the Nairobi Statement” and talking about the work I participated in creating a resource for the ELCA. In August I will host our fifth annual Tune Up Worship Band Gathering. This year it is being held at Messiah Lutheran Church in Cypress. Tune Up is a worthwhile event where church musicians from all over the area gather for training. The week after that I will be in Atlanta for the ELCA’s first Rostered Ministers Gathering. I will be presenting two workshops: “10 Ways to Use Video Technology in Worship” and “Curating Worship for a Cross-Cultural Context.” I will also be coordinating video technology for the event.

In September I will be headed to Dubuque, Iowa for my first weeklong intensive at Wartburg Theological Seminary. I am beginning my journey toward rostered Word and Sacrament ministry in the ELCA. I am very happy about these next steps in my calling to serve the church. Fortunately the Collaborative Learning program through Wartburg will allow me to stay at Faith Lutheran and complete my degree and internship without having to leave. I am currently enrolled in a Biblical Greek course over the summer! I am eager to learn and looking forward to more school!

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The Golden Rule for Worship Bands

The bands I work with probably get tired of hearing me say it – but I’m not sure it can be said enough: “Less is more.” Having the musicians/singers be picky about when they play/sing does a lot for the dynamics of a song. But it also does something on a spiritual level. It allows other members’ gifts to shine through. It allows everyone the opportunity to practice the “prefer others more than yourself” attitude (an essential attitude for any collection of worshipers).

From Greg Atkinson:

If you’re  a worship pastor that leads a band and you let your musicians play 100% all the time, you’re dropping the ball (you know I like to shoot straight). I mentioned that when I visit churches I often look for a laptop on stage. But one of the first things I look for is who is not playing. The difference between an amateur musician and a professional is knowing when not to play. It’s the whole “less is more” thing that I always preach.

Maybe this is something that your church band struggles with. Maybe you have a pianist that used to be “the band” and is used to playing the full 100% of the music. Now that a guitar, bass and drums are added in, she doesn’t know that her role must decrease and she must adjust the amount of action or busyness that she plays with in order to allow the other instruments to equal to 100%. This is what I call the 100% rule. You only have 100% to divide up – any one player can’t play like the 100% is up to him/her.

Let’s get practical: Often to make a point, I will go to the extreme. I used to do this with my camera operators and video directors all the time. When working with church bands, I will often ask players to “sit out” or restrain from playing for a LONG period of time – in order to get the point across.

Worship Band Tune Up, part 5

5. Lead guitars, sax, flute, and other instruments should not play the melody, but learn to play complementary parts in the pockets (between the vocal parts).

Read Tune Ups 1 2 3 4

I think there are also exceptions to this rule. I know there are times when I’ve had a lead solo instrument double the melody with the vocals, and it has added impact to the song. But I don’t suggest doing this more than 1 time during a set of worship songs. When you overuse this, it can sound amatureish. If you do have a solo instrument doubling the melody a lot, have them stop, and this should give your band a more professional sound instantly.

Some other solo instruments that sound good with a Worship Band:

  • cello
  • trumpet
  • clarinet
  • oboe
  • mandolin
  • hammer dulcimer
  • accordion
  • vibraphone

Learning to play complimentary parts in the pockets takes many years of musicianship to be able to do it on the fly. “In the pocket” in this sense means “between vocal parts.” The best example is on “turn-arounds” or the section of instrument music that takes you from the end of a chorus back into the beginning of a verse. Another “pocket” would be at the end of a vocal phrase, during the rests before they come back in.

Of course, if you’re going to add a solo instrument, and they can’t improvise, or even if they can, someone is going to have to write a part for every song. There is one resource that I have been consistently satisfied with when finding orchestrations for Worship Band songs. G3 music not only has creative arrangements of popular worship songs and hymns, but they also have great sounding horn parts that accent the song. G3 also allows you to subscribe to their service, or just buy single songs “a-la-cart” from the website. Having a solo instrument play the orchestration of their part from a song would be a good example of how to play in a Worship Band.

Switching to In-Ear-Monitors

Helpful article from Technologies for Worship Magazine

If getting rid of ambient stage noise and raising the comfort level of the musicians is a goal your team is trying to achieve, then you are on the right path with considering IEMs.

The key to success is to know why you are transitioning to IEMs. In-ear monitors make it possible to lower, if not totally eliminate stage volume. This is a huge benefit in any worship setting, and can be crucial in a small church building. Plus, by using IEMs, musicians and vocalists can get a very accurate rendition of what they are doing, and therefore feel more comfortable.

As with anything else, there is a distinct learning curve involved, so the first lesson would be not to put yourself in a pressure-cooker situation where the products are bound to fail your expectations. For example, switching everyone from stage wedges to IEMs for the first time the day before Sunday service is not recommended.

Worship Band Tune Up, part 4

Read parts 1 2 3

4. No one should ever play the melody line. (This is for the vocal team).

The obvious exception is during an instrumental section of a song. But if a vocalist is singing, an instrument can probably think of something better to play than doubling the melody being sung. Some ideas of what solo instruments (flute, violin, trumpet, etc.) can play instead:

  • a harmony at the interval of a 3rd, 4th, or 5th
  • an echo of the melody (“call and response” style)
  • follow the chord changes on sustained notes
  • play a counter-melody (something subtle that doesn’t take away from the melody)
  • when in doubt – lay out!

The rule to not play the melody also applies to keyboard instruments, unless the song is brand new and needs the support. Generaly, doubling the melody can be avoided by the keyboard. The keyboardist can think of their part as a separate accompaniment to the song and not like four-part hymn playing that doubles the melody and it’s rhythm.

Worship Band Tune Up, part 3

Parts 1 and 2

3. In keyboard driven worship the guitar players need to listen and play a complementary part and not the same rhythm. (This also applies to a multiple guitar scene).

When the keyboard is the driving instrument in a Worship Band (or just on a song), the guitar players need to do something different rhythmically. If the keyboard is playing steady eighth notes, the guitar should play whole notes, or half notes, or a lead part with a varied rhythm. If the keyboard is playing dense chords, the guitar should play a lighter voicing or even a single note figure. If the keyboard is playing sustained chords, the guitar should play a rhythm using open chords or a palm-muted power chord part. As always, there are exceptions to this rule – there are times when you would want all the instruments to line up rhythmically to create impact or buildup at a high point within a song. You probably don’t want every instrument playing the same rhythm the whole time in a song.

A note about frequency range: The guitars and keyboards tend to occupy the same frequency range. The guitar occupies the middle frequencies of the keyboard. Keyboardists can stay above middle C and be fine most of the time. If the guitar boosts it’s mid frequency this will help distinguish itself from the keyboard.

When you’ve got 2 guitars in the band, it’s good to break up their rhythmic approach and chordal voicing as well. If one guitar is playing open chords and strumming, the other guitar can:

  • capo and play different voicing of the chords
  • play palm-muted power chords in a higher voicing
  • play an arpeggio of the same open chord or a varied voicing
  • lay out (a novel concept)
  • play a counter melody using single notes

How to Kick Someone Out of the Band (nicely)

Nancy Beach has a post about a colleague that believed they needed to ask a Worship Band member to step down in order to take the team to the “next level.” I’ve been there.

To start, there are 2 main things I look for when selecting new Worship Band members. First there needs to be a heart attitude of worship, and a desire to be a servant. Second there needs to be clear gifting in the area they desire to serve in. Both of these things are necessary. Sometimes we invite someone into the Band when only one of these qualities is developed, and use the opportunity to move them along where they are lacking. Sometimes it isn’t immediately obvious that they have what it takes in both these areas. When you’re not sure, you have to go slow. Ask them to come to rehearsals, but not to lead on Sundays. For vocalists, ask them to sing in the choir for a few months before singing on a mic up front. See how that rubs them. Their reaction (and whether they even stick around) will clue you into where their heart is.

But what about someone who is not up to par in the musical/technical side. Here are my suggestions in handling that:

1. Let them know the expectations. Tell them you expect a degree of excellence in the presentation of music, and this requires practice apart from band rehearsal. Bottom line – a musical mistake equals a potential distraction in people connecting with God in worship.

2. Be specific. If it is a stylistic problem, tell them how you want it. If it is a technique problem, give helpful suggestions how to improve. Offer to help via lessons outside rehearsal. You can’t just tell them it’s not good enough and not provide a chance to correct it and grow.

3. Put the burden on them. Let them know that unless they get help and improve, we don’t have a place for you to serve here

4. Offer another venue for them to continue to serve and improve in. There are usually other places that need musical leadership: children’s church, youth band, small groups, prison ministry, etc. Let them serve somewhere else.

In the end, a band is only as good as it’s worst player. If efforts are made to improve and nothing is working, you have to cut the cord. Tell them, “We love you, but God has not gifted you to serve in this area. We know He has somewhere else for you to serve here.”

Worship Band Tune Up, part 2

Read “Worship Band Tune Up, part 1” here.

2. In guitar driven worship, the keyboard should use pads and strings so not to conflict with the rhythm of the guitar.

Depending on what God gives you, your band may be more guitar driven than keyboard driven. The instrument “driving” the band is the one that the lead worshiper usually plays. It’s also the instrument that starts most songs, and sets the rhythms that other instruments play to. If you’re blessed, you have a band that can be both guitar and keyboard driven, depending on the need of the song. Then you can add variety and depth to your worship music.

When the guitars are instrumentally “driving” the songs, the keyboard has to be played differently. This requires a keyboardist with sensitivity. They have to know when not to play notes in the left (bass) hand. They have to know when to switch pads so not to compete with the tone of the electric guitar. They have to know when to drop out altogether.

Humility is truly a wonderful contribution to a Worship Band.

So if the guitars are playing a heavily rhythmic strumming pattern, the keyboard should play something else and not try and copy the rhythm using a piano patch. Simple, single-note melodies work well in this setting. If the guitars are playing a flowing, eighth-note, finger-style pattern, the keyboard should play long, sustained notes/chords. If the guitars are playing palm muted, chunky riffs, the keyboard should find alternate voicings for the chords and look for countermelodies in the pockets between chord changes.

Worship Band Tune Up, part 1

Technologies for Worship Magazine had a great little tip from John Chevalier on how to build a Worship Band. I’m going to break apart his points and riff on each of them.

1. The bass should always play in sinc with the beat of the kick drum. This is key, as about 60% of your sound comes from these two instruments.

“Always” is a relative term. As will be the case in all of these tune up posts, these rules are flexible and should be taken more as guidelines. There are “always” occasions when they should be ignored.

The final comment about 60% of the band’s sound being generated by bass guitar and drums is a good and important statement. Unless of course, your band lacks either bass or drums. Again, there are occasions when these guidelines do not apply. But when bass guitar and drums are present, you can not underestimate the importance and function of these foundational instruments. They lay the chordal and rhythmic framework on which all other instruments and vocals are constructed upon.

It is also wise not to separate the bass guitar and drums into different sections or layers, but to think of them as 1 cohesive unit of tone and rhythm. I like to think that the bass guitar exists primarily to give tone and melody to the kick drum. When the kick drum is “punched,” the bass guitar provides the color and pitch to that impact. This combined sound has to be strong, just like the foundation of the house, so that everything that rests on top of it is secure and finds it’s place.

803573_31924336Drummers and bassists that play in sinc are rare. They are rare because it takes a relationship. It is much more than mechanics. It requires friendship and partnership. Of course, the bass guitarist needs to be positioned on stage so that he can keep an eye on the kick drum. That’s a basic thing in order to keep the sound tight. But the really good teams are able to anticipate each others playing. As I’ve been known to say, “the bass guitarist needs to know what the drummer had for breakfast before he sees him.”

In my 10+ years of worship ministry, of all the groups I’ve led or played in, I’ve only experienced this drum/bass sinc-anticipation playing maybe one time. It takes time to build. And it takes discipline for the drummer to play a beat consistently the same way so that the bass guitarist can follow along. Discipline is also needed from the bass player to accent the rhythmic pattern initiated by the drummer.